IAATE Resource Center: Companion Parrot

Cacatua alba

CLASS: AVESUmbrella Cockatoo
FAMILY: Cacatuidae
GENUS: Cacatua
SPECIES: C. alba

Common Name(s): Umbrella Cockatoo, White Cockatoo, Great-white Cockatoo, White-crested Cockatoo

The name cockatoo originated from the Malay name for these birds, kakaktua, which translates literally as "older sister."


The plumage of the Umberella Cockatoo is completely white except for a distinct yellow coloration on the underwings and at the base of the tail. They have a large white crest which lays flat on their head, but is raised with alarm, which may include excitement, curiosity, and/or fear. This crest is rounded and umbrella-shaped when raised, thus giving them their name.


The beak is grayish-black, and like all parrots, is large, curved and very powerful. Sexual dimorphism occurs in the eye coloration of the Umbrella Cockatoo. Both sexes have a pale blue eye-ring, but males have a dark brown iris while females have a reddish iris. Females usually have a smaller head and beak than males.


Umbrella Cockatoos medium-sized birds approximately seventeen to eighteen inches in length, and weighing around one to one-and-a-half pounds. The wingspan of this parrot averages around twenty-two inches.


These cockatoos are found in the North Moluccas of the Maluku province of Indonesia. They occur naturally on the islands of Halmahera, Bacan, Ternate, Kasiruta, Tidore, and Mandioli. They have been found on other islands, but they are believed to have been introduced to these areas as escaped captive populations.

This species lives in wooded areas. They are found in forests and open woodland, mangroves, swamps, agricultural areas and are particularly common around the edge of clearings and rivers. They spend most of their time in the tree canopy. It has been suggested that tall secondary vegetation is their preferred habitat.


There are 21 species of cockatoo. These large parrots share many features with other parrots including the characteristic curved beak shape and zygodactyl feet, with two forward toes and two backwards toes. In addition to being an extremely powerful and efficient “nut cracker”, their beak is used to aid in climbing much like a mountain-climber would use a grappling hook. The upper mandible is hinged at the joining to the skull which gives it more maneuverability than in other birds. The “X” shaped feet are an adaptation to assist in climbing shared with only a few other climbing birds, such as woodpeckers. In addition to this they actually have two pairs of opposable toes on each foot, giving them great ability to pick up and manipulate objects in their environment just like we would use our finger and opposable thumb. They hold their food in one foot while they are eating and will favor left, or right, much like a left/right-handed person.

Umbrella Cockatoos generally occur singly, in pairs and small groups, or in flocks of up to fifteen birds. In the afternoon, they gather in groups of up to fifty birds to roost for the night in large trees. Although they are social, with the exception of mating pairs, they generally do not form close bonds with one another. As a result, there is no firmly defined order of dominance in the community. They are diurnal and tend to be sedentary, although some may be nomadic and wander in search of food. This habit allows them to play an important role in their habitat by helping to propagate the forest. Because not all of the seeds consumed are digested, many are passed in the bird's guano over new areas of the forest.

Umbrella Cockatoos are named for the shape their massive white crest feathers take on when fully exposed. The crest is used in visual display for communication. Like all birds, cockatoos use their feathers and body language to communicate. One common example of this often seen with this species is in covering their beaks with the feathers around their face which minimizes the size of the beak and conveys a non-aggressive, welcoming message. Cockatoos are known for their loud vocalizations which are also used in communication. They have a loud, grating screech or scream and may hiss when alarmed.

Umbrella Cockatoos are powder-down birds, producing a dust from their feathers that can be quite heavy sometimes. During preening they distribute this powder throughout their feathers providing important waterproofing for life in a tropical, wet climate. In addition to preening, they bathe by flying among wet treetop leaves, or by flying or hanging upside-down when it rains.

These parrots are extremely bright and inquisitive birds. They have the ability to use tools, such as using a branch to scratch their backs. Birds in captivity require nearly constant mental stimulation. They are constantly moving, climbing, and doing gymnastics. In captivity, birds with too little mental stimulation often become neurotic, plucking their feathers to the point of baldness.


These birds will live by themselves, in pairs, or in very small groups. During mating season, the male struts and fans his crest in hopes of attracting a female. Cockatoos are monogamous, so when a mating pair is formed, they stay together for life. They usually build nests in the hollows of very large, tall trees. Females will lay up to three eggs at a time, which are incubated for about 30 days. Both parents will help care for their offspring; however, they will only care for one chick. If multiple eggs are laid, the first one that hatches that is healthy will be cared for by the parents. Chicks are born altricial, meaning that they are born relatively immobile, have their eyes closed and are without feathers, and rely solely on the parents for survival. Chicks learn to fly at three months of age but are still dependent on the parents for another two to three weeks. Once a chick is able to care for itself, the group of three rejoins the rest of the flock.


In the wild: Seeds, fruits, nuts and berries, occasionally insects, and possibly small lizards. They tend to feed in the tops of large trees, but will occasionally forage in a lower story of the forest to be less conspicuous to predators.


Umbrella Cockatoos can live over 40 years in captivity and 30 years in the wild. There have been claims of cockatoos living up to 100 years, though these claims have not been documented.


The most recent estimate of the world population of Umbrella Cockatoos is a range of fifty thousand to two-hundred thousand birds. Although this seems like their population is quite stable, their population is still vulnerable to factors which affect all parrot species: they are victims of the illegal pet trade, they are shot for food, and they are affected by deforestation. Although not classified as an endangered species, the Umbrella Cockatoo is classified as vulnerable. Its numbers in the wild have declined and it is listed in appendix II of the CITES list of protected species. This gives it protection by making the export, import and trade of wild-caught birds illegal.

Umbrella Cockatoos are common in captivity as a popular pet. They tend to be very cuddly, affectionate birds that require a lot of attention, more so than other parrots. Like all parrots, they can be very loud, screaming loudly at sunrise, sundown, and for attention. They have a powerful need to chew and can be quite destructive with their beaks if not given enough appropriate things to shred. Because of these more negative attributes umbrella cockatoos very often quickly become unwanted pets in animal shelters and bird rescue facilities.



BirdLife International (2008) Species factsheet: Cacatua alba

Forshaw, Joseph M. Parrots of the World



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